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Shabbat Before Shavuot

05/22/2018 04:19:37 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

As we approach the festival of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I’ve been thinking about the warning issued to the people: The warning to stay outside the boundaries set around Mount Sinai.

In the Torah’s story, only Moses and Aaron could approach the mountain.   Everyone else had to view the divine communication, the revelation, from afar. To approach the mountain was dangerous.[1]

I know something about drawing strict borders around something about which it may be dangerous to speak. 

I have drawn these borders.  But not because I’m afraid of being controversial or of making people angry. If that were my guiding principle I might as well just  speak in “noise-shaped air,” (to borrow a line from the show VEEP).  I don’t want to speak in words empty of real meaning. We have enough “noise-shaped air” in our world.

Besides, I know that at Temple Israel, when we disagree, we still love each other.  Right?

Fear is not what has kept me outside the boundary of discourse on this topic.

The topic is what’s happening in Israel. This week saw the same thing many of you saw: Photos from the ceremony celebrating U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, side by side with horrifying images of teargas and bullets and dead bodies at the border of Gaza.

I found myself reacting emotionally to these images, and then I felt frozen, not sure how to respond. If someone had asked me: “Rabbi, what do you think about this?” I would not have had a ready answer.

You see, I thought that any statement I make about what is going on in Israel should be clear and cogent-- like the revelation we read about at Sinai.

But what might appear to be “clear” can, upon closer inspection, become quite complicated. The Torah itself illustrates this truth.

Consider one the of commandments we heard Cantor Ellerin read:  לֹ֥א תִרְצַ֖ח  Lo Tirtzak – “Do not murder” – Not “do not kill,” the King James Version reads.

When viewed from afar, the command against murder seems clear.

But let’s take a closer look.


The medieval commentator Rashbam says: this Hebrew verb used here (Lir’tzoh-akh) לרצח refers to “unjustified” killing.  


That means that some killing is “justified.” Here’s a problem:

There is a story elsewhere in the Torah  in which Moses gets mad at the Israelite army for not killing all the Midianite women,[2] and then he orders the army to kill every male child, and every non-virgin woman.[3]

In this story, this slaughter is justified killing – it’s not murder.

In my eyes?  It’s not justified.

Here’s another complication. 

Another medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, taught that we can murder by our speech:

“By lying, gossiping, deliberately giving fatal advice, or failing to reveal a secret that might save a life.”

If you really examine how we use the English word “murder” today, it spans a wide range. We can all agree that pre-meditated killing of another individual is murder. But for some, capital punishment is murder. For some, the shooting of unarmed civilians by police is murder. For some, abortion is murder. And for some, killing animals for their fur is murder.

It boils down to this: Murder is an act that the speaker/writer strongly condemns.

This isn’t clear at all.

What seems simple from when viewed from afar – the commandment against murder – is not simple at all.

I see the same thing when it comes to Israel and the conflict there. When viewed from afar, it’s easy to react emotionally and make simplistic judgements. Israel is either completely blameless or it is 100% to blame. 

That’s the problem with remaining outside of the boundary around the mountain because we may fear it’s dangerous to draw near. We think everything is simple.  But the reality is far more complex.

I want to end tonight by telling you some things I think it is important to know about the conflict on the border with Gaza.

First:  The protests on the border of Gaza were originally organized as a “Great March of Return” to Israel.   They were not started as a response to the embassy move.  The protests began earlier – and the real issue is Israel’s right to exist.  I believe that Israel has the right to defend herself against violent intrusion, like every other nation on this earth.

Second:  Gazans live in miserable conditions and many people are suffering.  Israel is partially responsible for this.  The Israeli blockade of Gaza has choked the possibility of a better economy.  Israel has restricted imports and exports in unpredictable ways,  making it difficult for Gazans to plan their  economic future.  And Gazans are virtual prisoners:  Israel forbids Gazans from traveling abroad unless they commit to not returning for a full year.

Hamas is also responsible for the misery of the Gazans. They use concrete to build tunnels instead of hospitals or schools.  They repress Palestinian women, persecute minorities, and terrorize Gazans who do not support them. And it seems that Hamas encouraged protestors to storm the border fence with Israel by manipulating and lying to them.

Third, we can’t blame Palestinians for having terrible leaders. There is no clear way that Gazans can overthrow Hamas.  They cannot “vote Hamas out” because there hasn’t been an election called-for since 2006.  And, as I said, Hamas terrorizes those who criticize them – even young teens.


Is there any hope?  According to Yair Rosenberg, there are “constructive solutions to Gaza’s problems that would alleviate the plight of its Palestinian population while assuaging the security concerns of Israelis.  However, these useful proposals do not go viral like angry tweets ranting about how Palestinians are all de facto terrorists or Israelis are the new Nazis, which is why you probably have never heard of them.”  (See Tablet’s “13 Inconvenient Truths about what has been happening in Gaza”)

There is far more to say on this topic. For now, let me conclude with this thought.

I do not believe that we Jews can stay outside the borders of discourse on the topic of the Jewish state and her conflicts.  If the complexity makes us comfortable, let’s remember:  We are fully equipped to live with complexity.

Just think about our Torah and it’s many interpretations – as we saw, the commandment “don’t murder” isn’t so simple, is it?

So we are well-equipped as a people to confront complexity, to sharpen our own understanding of history, to engage in respectful discussion with those who disagree with us, and, most important, to keep our hearts open to the hope that one day the human suffering will end.

But, as I learned, to do this means we need to step beyond our self-imposed boundaries, and draw near to the mountain.


[1] See Exodus 19

[2] Numbers 30: 14-15

[3] Numbers 30: 17

Sat, December 7 2019 9 Kislev 5780